AFTER more than 40 years of one-party rule, East Germans have jumped into democracy with enthusiasm. This is most noticeable in the plethora of political parties and groups - about a dozen so far.
Although the East Germans seem thrilled by this freedom, the fact that there are so many political voices could become a liability in the parliamentary elections, just four months away. A lot can change between now and May 6, the expected election day. At the moment, it is hard to see any clear leader emerging from the pack.
Meanwhile, parties and new movements are busily drawing up their platforms. This, however, presents yet another challenge: finding an identity. In the eyes of many voters, the difference between most of these groups is only a hair's breadth.
``A big part of the population knows who not to vote for, but not who to vote for. ... They [the parties] are all for [a new] socialism and the ecology,'' says Thomas Sommer, a 31-year-old Dresdener listening to West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl speak there on Dec. 19.
``Well put, professor,'' chimed in a man nearby.
Traditionally, East Germany had five parties: the Socialist Unity Party (the Communist Party or SED) and four much smaller parties, which toed the SED line. Since the country's ``about face'' this fall, these parties have tried to break with their Stalinist past, purge old leadership, and rework their programs.
Meanwhile, at least seven new parties and political groups have taken root. They include leftists, Greens, and a broad group of people who favor some kind of market-oriented economy plus a clean environment.
Heading into elections, the new groups, or ``opposition,'' have one tremendous advantage: They don't have the blackened past of the ``renewed'' traditional parties. The unanswered question is how much this advantage will outweigh the fact that the traditional parties already have a large organization in place.
``Naturally, the traditional parties have an advantage because they have a structure set up in every city, in every village. We have experience,'' says Karl Hennig, spokesman for the Christian Democratic Union, one of the country's smaller, traditional parties. Add to this phones, offices, and printing presses, and the gap seems almost unbridgeable.
``We're in a very unfavorable situation,'' says Wolfgang Ullmann, about the opposition in general. ``People have jobs. They do their political work outside of office hours.'' Mr. Ullmann is leader of Democracy Now, which is not a party but a loose organization of opposition groups.
An important source of funds and advice could be the political parties in West Germany. The Social Democrats there have swung in behind the newly formed Social Democrats in East Germany. The Christian Democrats in West Germany, according to Mr. Kohl, expect to decide this month which party they will support.
The fact that some major opposition groups are not parties could be another problem. Members of New Forum, the largest opposition group, debated whether to become a party, says Uwe Radloff of New Forum. Its national council said last week that the group will remain a citizens' movement. Pro-party members had argued that being a party is the only way, in the long run, to have influence. Antiparty members said their strength is from the masses who are turned off by parties and politics.
The party issue is the reason New Forum and Democracy Now favor an election law that would allow independents to run for parliament in May. The parliament and the round table, which represents the opposition and the traditional parties, begin work on election reform this month.
A Western diplomat here says it would be ``foolhardy'' to create a law that would allow just anyone to run. With as many as 15 parties possibly competing, plus independents, ``how could they [the opposition] organize?''
There's no telling whether all of these parties will make it to the end of the campaign. But if they do, it would certainly be favorable for the SED-PDS (the SED, at a recent party congress, added Party of Democratic Socialism to its name). With so many factions, it would only take 7 or 8 percent of the vote to win the election, says the diplomat, though the winner would have to form a coalition government to avoid chaos. With the SED-PDS's million-plus base, shrunk as it is from resignations, it would stand a good chance under these conditions.
Despite the party's past, some of the new SED-PDS leaders talk rather confidently about the coming election. ``I'm not sure that programs will decide everything. I think faces will be important,'' says Wolfgang Berghofer, the reform-minded mayor of Dresden and a top leader in the SED-PDS.
Mr. Berghofer and Hans Modrow, the East German prime minister, are two faces that have a very favorable rating in East Germany. According to a recent poll in the West German magazine Der Spiegel, Mr. Modrow has the highest positive rating in East Germany and Mr. Berghofer the third highest.
But there will be no avoiding the issues. The economy is named as the most important - and here, there is a dearth of ideas on what to do about it. If concrete changes aren't seen within a year, much more of the population will walk West, many analysts say.
The other issue is the German question. Parties are divided between those that favor close relations with West Germany but do not want unification (the SED-PDS) and those that see close relations as an interim step to eventual unification.